A Shared Humanity

Metroland (Albany, NY) , September 8, 2011


The mention of teen and tween YouTube videos likely conjures thoughts of hairbrush karaoke or daredevil stunts. It probably doesn’t evoke visions of a poised, charismatic young woman unfurling an evocative creation myth for a rapt audience composed of all ages, races and faiths. And yet, it’s just that scene that Children at the Well Youth Storytellers for Peace & Understanding have crafted through years of collaboration between area children and their professional storytelling coaches.

In the days following 9/11, attacks against the Muslim community were so prevalent that the AnNur Islamic School in Schenectady, the Capital Region’s only full-time Islamic school, closed its doors for a week. Death threats had been made against other Muslim schools, and the AnNur administration feared their students were at risk. When classes finally resumed, the anxiety remained, but in a break from the hostility many of the nation’s Islamic communities encountered, AnNur opened their doors to an outpouring of support.

One of those supporters was Gert Johnson. A former religion teacher with Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons Catholic High School, Johnson also spearheaded the Interfaith Story Circle of the Tri-City Area, an informal interfaith storytelling group that met monthly in churches and synagogues around the Capital Region. Johnson offered to hold a storytelling workshop with the students at AnNur school, to help strengthen their faith, identity and understanding in the aftermath of 9/11.

The workshop furthered Johnson’s hope to engage more youth in interfaith storytelling. Despite efforts to welcome children to the Story Circle, the group of storytellers remained adult—save for 11-year-old Adah Hetko, who leapt enthusiastically into storytelling, attending the group’s monthly meetings and participating in their annual performances. But Hetko wanted storytelling peers.

The seeds were planted, and in 2005, Johnson, along with Hetko’s mother, Paula Weiss, and other storytelling advocates, drafted a proposal for the $5,000 Brimstone Award for Applied Storytelling from the National Storytelling Network, which they won.

Now in its seventh year, Children at the Well – Youth Storytellers for Peace & Understanding, for which Weiss now serves as director, launched their first classes in 2006, with Hetko and a handful of students from the original AnNur school workshop at the program’s core.

The students, who come from Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Unitarian, even atheist backgrounds, meet weekly with story coaches and peers over a 12-week session. The coaches are all local professional storytellers who have been drawn to the program’s misson to connect youth and families of different faiths in sharing stories from their diverse traditions, and in doing so, to subtly shape their tolerance of all religious traditions.

“I think what Children at the Well does is it proves the stereotypes wrong.” Says Alaudeen Umar, a high school senior who is both African-American and Muslim. “Every religion may have negative points, but every religion also has positive points and Children at the Well celebrates the positive points of every religion. It shows that there are Muslim kids who can get along with non-Muslim kids, with Christian kids or Jewish kids, or Hindu kids, it definitely builds understanding. . . . You get to look through the looking glass at other religions, and you also learn to better understand and talk about your own.”

Subjects Covered: diversity, education

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